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The Eagle Still Soars

Long ago, and long before I started noting everything I read down in my LibraryThing account, I recall being influenced by a book that aimed to help the reader get a handle on the four gospels of the New Testament. It took classic symbols applied to the gospels (drawn from a vision of Ezekiel’s and reinforced by John’s Revelation), framed the narrative of each one in that context and, based on the tests it presented, seemed quite effective at helping to distinguish which witness was speaking in a given passage.

I took that idea on board and have shared these pearls of wisdom with a number of people over the years. The only trouble is that either the book was wrong or I have remembered it incorrectly. I am sure it put Matthew as the lion (Jesus as king), Mark as the ox (Jesus serving others), Luke as the man (Jesus concerned with people) and John as the eagle (visionary insights not found in the three synoptic gospels). I was surprised then when reading a passage from the second century bishop Irenaeus (in David Winter. After the Gospels: readings from the great Christians of the early church. BRF, Oxford, 2001. p89) which summarises:

The first was like a lion, which symbolises Christ’s royal power and authority. That is Mark. The second was a calf, which denotes his sacrificial and priestly function, to which Luke bears witness. The third had a human face, testifying that the Son would come among us as a human being — Matthew’s witness. And the fourth was an eagle in flight, picturing the gift of the Spirit hovering on outspread wings above the Church, which is John’s vision.

That is the same order of presentation but not the same attribution of the symbols. It appears there is some confusion though. I searched the web and found that most of the top hits confirmed the Irenaian order but, some information (such as Symbols of the Four Evangelists) demonstrates that there have been different interpretations over time (although no mention of the pattern I had learned).

I wonder if the book I read drew on the order in Revelation 4:5-11 (lion, ox, man, eagle) and attributed the results in what is now the commonly accepted canonical order? I must go back to earlier notes and see if I can identify the title; I would love to re-read it and see if it addresses the different traditions of symbology. For now though, I will have to content myself that all four gospels show Christ’s authority, priestly function, humanity and vision; the eagle still soars though we imperfectly understand its mind.

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